Commentary: The `Glass Ceiling' In The Cabinet Room

What do Alice M. Rivlin, Donna E. Shalala, Janet Reno, Hazel R. O'Leary, Carol M. Browner, and Laura D'Andrea Tyson have in common? Sure, all are accomplished women who hold top-level jobs in the Clinton Administration. But they also have something else in common: None seems to wield the same influence as her male predecessor or counterpart in the Administration.

Call it President Clinton's new woman problem. Although he has placed far more women in Cabinet-level jobs than any previous Chief Executive, the President nonetheless seems most comfortable governing with the help of an inner circle of male counselors. The sole exception is First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Otherwise, laments one senior female official, "there's the boys' team and the girls' team. It's sad but true." Another top woman says the bias is subtle. "We're in the room, treated with respect, and listened to. I just don't think our ideas carry as much weight."

Consider the lot of Rivlin, the director of the Office of Management & Budget. If she had her druthers, friends say, she would have led the way to a compromise balanced-budget plan with Capitol Hill Republicans. But White House budget strategy was commandeered by Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, Rivlin's predecessor at OMB. Panetta's political skills were considered more vital than Rivlin's fiscal acumen.

"MERE VISIBILITY." Then there's Health & Human Services Secretary Shalala, who lost control over the biggest policy issue involving her agency: health-care reform. That project was managed from inside the White House by adviser Ira C. Magaziner--working with Hillary Clinton, not Shalala.

At the Justice Dept., Clinton's maverick Attorney General, Janet Reno, is in charge of law-enforcement issues. But she does not serve as a Presidential confidante on legal matters, as have most of her male predecessors. Energy Secretary O'Leary was derided by White House officials as a nonplayer long before she recently embarrassed the Administration with a flap over her extravagant travel budget. Browner, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, doesn't set EPA policy--that's done, some Clintonites say, by her mentor, Vice-President Al Gore. Tyson, director of the National Economic Council, doesn't appear to have as much clout as her male predecessor, Robert E. Rubin, who is now Treasury Secretary.

And consider the plight of former Presidential press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who resigned because she was denied the close access to Bill Clinton enjoyed by both her predecessor, George R. Stephanopoulos, and successor, Michael D. McCurry. Ross K. Baker, a Presidential scholar at Rutgers University, claims that Clinton's appointment of women to prominent positions "is a liberal attempt to go for mere visibility--gender diversity. But when you look deeper, you see there's not a lot of influence that goes with these jobs."

Clinton's defenders vehemently deny that the President is guilty of gender bias. "I have never felt that my advice is not heard," says EPA's Browner. Cabinet Secretary Kitty Higgins, the liaison between the White House and the agencies, declares: "There are more women in senior positions of influence in this Administration than any place I've ever seen." And HHS Secretary Shalala--leaving aside the handling of health-care reform--says that over the past two years, women have been dominant players in setting "all social and health-care policy" for the Administration.

Perhaps. But even Shalala concedes that she has women friends in the Administration who might disagree with her, although they won't do so on the record.

OUT OF THE LOOP. Some male counterparts speculate that these women aren't "political" enough and don't have the "sharp elbows" men have learned to use to get their way. And in some cases, the women in top posts are out of the loop because their male and female colleagues don't think they are up to the job. But some of Clinton's top men aren't such sharp operators, either. So it's hard to blame the problem solely on performance.

Whatever the source of their frustration, senior women who work for Clinton say they don't have the President's ear. It's a problem Clinton needs to fix. If he doesn't think his top women advisers are up to the job, he should replace them--and stop using them as diversity window dressing.

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